Linda Blackford

A lawmaker protested KCTCS president’s raise. Was that too much legislative influence?

Jay Box, president of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, has gotten into a set-to with one of the system’s most devoted supporters, and it’s raising questions about how much legislative influence is too much.

As reported by the Herald-Leader last week, the KCTCS Board of Regents was set to vote on a pay raise for Box on Sept. 20. Box’s current salary is $355,350, according to the Herald-Leader’s online KCTCS salary database and board documentation. His total compensation is $379,350, which includes a $24,000 auto allowance, and a compensation committee recommended an annual payment of $50,000 a year and $100,000 a year in deferred compensation.

This news alarmed Rep. Bobby McCool, a Republican legislator from Van Lear who worked for KCTCS for many years. He quickly penned a letter to Gail Henson, chairwoman of the Board of Regents. The letter, dated Sept. 19 on House of Representatives letterhead, asked her to give “great consideration” to the pay raise proposal.

“President Jay Box has done a commendable job since taking the helm in 2015. This request should be no means reflect on his accomplishments,” McCool wrote. “Rather I ask that you consider the message that such a substantial increase sends to the students and staff of our community and technical schools at a time when KCTCS has public shared its concerns that the system’s public pension obligations may lead to increased tuition or staff cuts.”

McCool attended the KCTCS breakfast before the board meeting in Pikeville on Friday, and before it began, he was pulled aside by Box.

“He was angry with me before the board meeting,” McCool told me on Tuesday. “ He said I had overstepped my bounds as a legislator even though my letter didn’t say anything negative. He was visibly upset.”

It turned out that McCool wasn’t the only one concerned about the proposed raise. After two votes to accept a pay raise failed, Box then asked the board to table the motion, McCool said.

When I asked Box about his interaction with McCool, he said in an emailed statement that while he knew McCool had the best interests of KCTCS students at heart: “I was disappointed that he did not feel he could come to me to discuss his concerns prior to the board meeting, and I let him know that.”

Linda Blackford Charles Bertram

Box also said it was “inappropriate” for McCool to send a letter in his official government role. If the chair had distributed McCool’s letter to the board, which she did not, it could have risked KCTCS’ national accreditation because boards are supposed to protect their institutions from “inappropriate influence.”

Kentucky ethics law says legislators “shall not use or attempt to use any means to influence a state agency in direct contravention of the public interest at large.”

So is a legislator asking a board to consider the optics of a giant pay raise against the public interest? I would say no, especially given that legislators make their feelings about how colleges and universities operate clear all the time. It’s an interesting strategy for Box, though, to throw one of the system’s most ardent legislative supporters under the ethics bus.

Legislators threaten, cajole, consult with colleges and universities all the time, not to mention holding their purse strings which they frequently use as leverage. Remember the bill to defund universities that didn’t comply with federal authorities searching out undocumented students? And let’s don’t be naive: I’m sure that when the legislators make it known who they want to get which job, they don’t write it down on House letterhead. McCool did, knowing full well that it would be made part of the public record.

Given didn’t give McCool’s letter to other regents, but it’s clear that a majority of them already shared his concerns. That’s as it should be. University governing boards spend far too much time worrying about their presidents’ salaries, especially at KCTCS, which gave previous President Mike McCall a truly shameful $800,000 golden parachute. As McCool wrote, KCTCS is on the front lines of getting Kentuckians educated and “I know we can all agree that our first priority should be the education of our students.”

Linda Blackford writes columns and commentary for the Herald-Leader.